Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2017

Merton on the desert: We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.

From Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself—that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the “wilderness of upper Egypt” to “wander in dry places.” Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage….

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

 

 

Barely Audible

Barely Audible

קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

A still small voice
1 Kings 19:12

Hurricanes earthquakes
Fires in the brain
Awed but unable
To follow a thought
Or lose one.
Hear O hear
Minute stillness
Soft murmuring
Gentle whisper
Still small.

Note: “God will reveal himself not in storm or fire or the shaking of the mountain but in a small, barely audible sound. On Mount Carmel, God spoke through fire; here at Horeb, he speaks [to Elijah] in a more subtle language, for the deity is by no means limited to seismic manifestations.”
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, translation with commentary by Robert Alter

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Quilts

Quilts

Those who sew
The finer clothes
Worn and admired
For life lifting
Form and function
Honored for their hard won skill
Using needle and precious cloth.
My works are barely fashioned
From scraps sitting on a dusty shelf
Stuffed in an almost forgotten box.
Crude quilts not meant to do much
Or mean much
But nagging to be made.

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Yaqui: The last piece in a spiritual puzzle?

Saying that something is “the last piece in a spiritual puzzle” is misleading in so many ways.

It is not a spiritual puzzle, there are no pieces, and they do not appear and are not apprehended in sequence. It is a mystery of mysteries, at best they are clues, which fly in and out of the seen and unseen sky like birds, some of which you recognize, but many of which you will not identify until much later, if ever at all.

I am not a fan of spiritual syncretism and I am not not a fan of spiritual syncretism. Those who go from birth to death in a single tradition have much. Those who like bees or hummingbirds go from flower to flower have much. So it goes.

As for me, continuing a metaphorical mix, I’ve looked at plans and kept to some, picked up building materials along the way, and constructed what I could from what I found or what was delivered. It doesn’t look quite like anything else, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the structure even if I could, but I might suggest it is not a terrible process. Or place to work and rest in.

Here is something about the Yaqui of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico and something from the most extraordinary of Buddhist scriptures.


Sea Aniya: The Flower World

In the spiritual heart of the “enchanted” natural world is the dream-like presence of this “blossoming” world. This realm is difficult to define in words. It is part of a ritualized symbolic language of spirit that is understood by not solely by the mind, but also by the heart. What can be said is that the Sea Aniya is the integral part of a very ancient belief that is also a part of most Mexican Indian peoples’ mythology: the idea of flowers “expressing” a spiritual message, flowers symbolizing growth (germination, budding, flowering) of spiritual awareness. Flowers are the harmony, fertility, and beauty of this world. Yaquis believe in a manifested reality so that we know this is a very real world that is located east of the sun and in a place below the dawn. It is an ideally perfected world that mirrors the grace and beauty of the desert territory.

Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends & Myths by Stan Padilla

The Flower Ornament Scripture

The Flower Ornament Scripture, called Avatamsaka in Sanskrit and Huayan in Chinese, is one of the major texts of Buddhism. Also referred to as the major Scripture of Inconceivable Liberation, it is perhaps the richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, held in high esteem by all schools of Buddhism that are concerned with universal liberation. Its incredible wealth of sensual imagery staggers the imagination and exercises an almost mesmeric effect on the mind as it conveys a wide range of teachings through its complex structure, its colorful symbolism, and its mnemonic concentration formulae….

[Book One] “THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals. The ocean of characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth.”

The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary

It took Nixon 1,734 days. It took Trump only 109.

It took Nixon 1,734 days. It took Trump only 109.

Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre took place on October 20 1973. Besieged by investigations into Watergate, on that night he fired independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, which resulted in Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigning. That was 1,734 days after Nixon took office.

Today Donald Trump fired Attorney General James Comey, who was leading one of the investigations into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. It is 109 days after Trump took office.

It still took nearly a year, but Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, in the face of certain Senate conviction of impeachment articles passed by the House. The articles begin:

ARTICLE 1

In his conduct of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice. (emphasis added)

We don’t know that the Republican-led House will have the courage to hold impeachment hearings, let alone pass articles of impeachment. Unlike the Nixon situation, where Republicans cooperated in a bipartisan upholding of core American and constitutional principles, it is hard to tell exactly what some Republicans believe or will do in these circumstances.

The only thing certain is that with this firing of the FBI Director, we are in dark territory. Will it get even darker? Will we see the light? And will no Congress rid us of this turbulent president?

See The Case for Impeachment by Allan J. Lichtman

A Day for Job

In the Orthodox Church, today is officially a day for the marvelous and mysterious biblical character Job, who is called by that church Righteous Job the Long-Suffering. While the Book of Job is certainly read, used and debated in other Jewish and Christian traditions, this is the only official recognition he gets.

I’ve written before about Job (Yom Kippur and Job, The Radical Book of Job) because there is nothing like it in the Bible, not even close. Robert Alter writes in his enlightening translation and commentary:

The Book of Job is in several ways the most mysterious book of the Hebrew Bible. Formally, as a sustained debate in poetry, it resembles no other text in the canon. Theologically, as a radical challenge to the doctrine of reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, it dissents from a consensus view of biblical writers—a dissent compounded by its equally radical rejection of the anthropocentric conception of creation that is expressed in biblical texts from Genesis onward. Its astounding poetry eclipses all other biblical poetry, working in the same formal system but in a style that is often distinct both lexically and imagistically from its biblical counterparts.

“The patience of Job” is the way the story is frequently summarized, suggesting that even in the face of undeserved suffering, Job is a model of how unwavering faith will carry us through the worst times. Once you have read the Book of Job carefully, along with some of the many excellent interpretations, you find that this is not the case. The Book of Job does not solve any mysteries or answer any questions. All it does is deepen mysteries and ask more questions. This isn’t what we might want, but if you’ve lived a life, you know that is what you get. Which is precisely what makes the Book of Job so irreplaceably essential, even if not particularly comforting.

The Long Hot Summer

The movie Detroit will be released on August 4. Directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, it is about the Detroit riots in the American summer of 1967.

Fifty years ago, the summer of 1967—known as “the long hot summer”—was an unforgettable moment in American race relations. The Detroit riots were just part of it. That summer, 163 riots took place in American cities and towns, including in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and Newark.

And in Detroit. During five days there, 43 people died, 1,189 people were injured, 7,231 people were arrested, 2,509 stores were looted or burned, 388 families were displaced, and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished.

As a result, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate and report. Months later the government published The Kerner Report: The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.


From the Introduction to the 2016 reprint edition of The Kerner Report by Julian E. Zelizer of Princeton University:

The report remains one of the most insightful government examinations of the state of race relations in twentieth-century America, with lessons that reverberate today and others that were ignored….

The Kerner Commission’s findings would be unlike almost any other report that the federal government had produced about race relations in America. Although the report stuck to conventional liberal ideas about how to improve racial equality, its analysis of the problems in the cities pointed to some radical critiques about the problem of institutional racism in America. The widely discussed report offered hard-hitting arguments about the ways in which white racism was built into the institutions and organization of urban America, so much that racial inequality was constantly reproduced over generations. The report tackled controversial issues like police violence against African Americans that had often been kept on the sidelines of mainstream political discourse….

In July, two major riots devastated the cities of Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. These were the worst of 163 riots that broke out that summer, in places large and small, ranging from Plainfield, New Jersey, to Wadesboro, North Carolina. On July 12, rioting started in Newark after rumors that the police had mistreated an African American cab driver whom they were arresting. To the eyes of some close to the Johnson administration, Newark’s unrest was the culmination of many years of frustration with excessive police violence. In fact, President Johnson refrained from sending in any troops to achieve calm, fearing that doing so would only stoke the racial flames engulfing the city. After five days of devastating violence, the riots ended with twenty-six people dead, hundreds injured, and massive property damage to the community.

The violence in Detroit started on July 23, not long after the smoke from the Newark riots had cleared….

The rioters, they found, were usually educated and had been employed in previous years. Most of them were angry about the kind of racial discrimination they faced when seeking employment and places to live. They were frustrated with the state of their neighborhoods and wanted access to the political system from which they had been disenfranchised. They also were described as wanting to participate in the consumer culture that American leaders had boasted about. The rioters were not driven by radical agitators, nor were they recent transplants to the city. The report depicted them instead as ordinary, longtime residents of neighborhoods who could no longer withstand the deplorable conditions under which they and their families lived….

No institution received more scrutiny than the police. The rioting had shown without any doubt that law enforcement had become a problem in race relations. Rather than constructive domestic policies, more aggressive policing had become the de facto response from city officials. “In several cities,” the report stated, “the principal official response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.” The police played a big role in almost all of the riots, according to the commissioners. Indeed, in contrast to the findings of the McCone Commission, the Kerner report noted that systematic police violence against African Americans was at the heart of the riots of this period, more so than almost any other issue….

In provocative fashion, the report blamed “white racism” for producing the conditions that were at the heart of the riots. With a powerful account of the history of race relations, the commission had traced the problems in the cities all the way back to slavery. The point was not that white Americans were intentionally committing racial injustice against African Americans, but that racism was imbedded in institutions….

There have been some notable improvements since the time the report was published, however. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s did legitimate racial integration, while social programs from that period—such as Medicaid and food stamps—created an important base of support to alleviate the conditions that the poor faced. A growing African American middle class has also been one of the most important positive developments in race relations.

Yet the problems highlighted in the Kerner Commission’s report remain hauntingly relevant today. Many parts of inner-city America remain as unstable, if not more so, than when Kerner looked into the conditions that existed in the late 1960s. Lack of jobs, inadequate education, racial discrimination, and police brutality all remain prevalent in modern times. Poverty has also been spreading to the suburbs, bringing these issues into new areas, while economic inequality has generally become more severe and hardened. The war on crime and the war on drugs have replaced urban policy. For those who didn’t make it out, hope for change has only diminished….

The Kerner report still stands as a powerful statement about the struggles that African Americans face in a country where racism shapes many of our key institutions. The Kerner report, a shining argument that government can indeed respond to national problems, still has a great deal to offer policymakers and citizens as they wrestle with racial tension in the aftermath of the racial unrest in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cincinnati, and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. In all of these cases police violence against urban residents again brought attention to the racial disparities that afflict many parts of the nation.

Moonstruck

Moonstruck

The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Psalms 121:6

What harm can the moon do
By striking you?
Is it madness
The derivative cool light
Of a white satellite
Instead of the blinding broiling
Yellow star
That menaces you?
He neither slumbers nor sleeps
And neither do you
When one leaves
One arrives
Closed lids do not shade it
Right hand or left.

© Bob Schwartz 2017